A message from Washington

Print edition : May 09, 2003

Even as the Sri Lankan peace process enters a crucial phase, the LTTE continues to be treated with suspicion by the international community, especially the United States and India.

in Colombo

"I believe the negotiations between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE have reached an important point, one where an infusion of international support can add an unstoppable force to this momentum of peace."

- Richard L. Armitage, United States Deputy Secretary of State, in his opening remarks at the Washington seminar on Sri Lanka, April 14.

"The authentic representatives of the Tamil people should have been invited to this major international conference to articulate the interests and aspirations of our people."

- The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in a statement protesting its exclusion from the seminar.

HAVING bombed its way to the negotiating table, the LTTE now finds its claim to being the "sole representative" of Sri Lankan Tamils being seriously challenged by two major international players - India and the United States. The LTTE was kept away from the Washington seminar convened by Richard Armitage as part of preparations for the donors' conference to be held in Tokyo in June (box on page 51). For a change, the Tigers found themselves at the receiving end. In the last six months, it was the LTTE which decided who would attend the talks with the Sri Lankan government, and when.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

The LTTE issued an angry statement from its political headquarters in Kilinochchi. Yet, there was enough evidence that it was not yet keen on taking on the U.S. The statement was more critical of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe's administration than Washington. The LTTE threatened to "review" its participation in the Tokyo conference.

By all counts, it was an instance of brinkmanship - pushing for more, not yielding anything, particularly its space at Tokyo. In its strongest criticism so far of Wickremasinghe, the LTTE charged his administration with "impotence". On the other hand, it only threatened to "review" its decision to participate in the Tokyo conference.

Rather than point fingers at Washington, the Tigers targeted the other participants in the peace process - Colombo and Norway - for having caused its "deliberate exclusion" from the seminar in order to "marginalise our organisation". Terming it a "grave breach of good faith", the rebels said they were "deeply disappointed" with the Sri Lankan government and the facilitators, Norway, which "failed to ensure the LTTE's participation in this crucial preparatory aid conference by not selecting an appropriate venue". The fact that the LTTE was kept out of the Washington conference as it is listed as a foreign terrorist organisation in the U.S. was overlooked.

The LTTE reserved the strongest words for issues with military implications. The Tigers, who lost military control over the Jaffna peninsula in 1996, demanded demobilisation by the Sri Lankan military in the north. This resulted in a stalemate, with the crucial sub-committee on de-escalation and normalisation (SDN) becoming defunct.

The LTTE statement said: "The irreconcilable attitude of the Sri Lanka military hierarchy and the impotence of Ranil Wickremasinghe's administration have made all programmes of resettling and rehabilitating hundreds of thousands of Tamil refugees and internally displaced persons unrealisable."

The LTTE's chief negotiator in the peace process, Anton Balasingham.-KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP

In January, after it unilaterally pulled out of the SDN, the LTTE had accused the military of adopting an "intransigent and paranoid" approach. It had, however, refrained from pointing fingers at Wickremasinghe's administration, with which it was holding talks. It reserved its condemnation for President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who also heads the armed forces.

This time, however, the LTTE questioned the "very efficacy" of the negotiating process as "decisions and agreements" reached at the peace talks were "not being implemented, eroding the confidence of the Tamil people".

What has hurt the Tigers the most is the fact that their exclusion from the Washington meeting directly challenges their claim as the sole representatives of the island's Tamils - a claim not accepted by other Tamil political parties. This was reflected in the LTTE's statement, which said: "It is only fair and just that the authentic representatives of the Tamil people should have been invited to this major international conference to articulate the interests and aspirations of our people."

As a sign of a possible threat, the Tigers left the door ajar. It wanted the "full implementation of the normalisation aspects" of last year's ceasefire agreement as well as the "implementation of agreements pertaining to resettlement of refugees and IDPs [internally displaced persons] reached in the six rounds of talks held by both parties".

POLITICAL leaders and analysts are of the view that the threat could well turn out to be an empty one. "I don't see the Tigers staying out of Tokyo," said a senior political leader, "not when they are so close to putting their hands into the pot of money."

However, there is also the view that the threat should not be overlooked. "If the Tigers are serious about not participating in Tokyo, it means imminent war," a military analyst said.

If the Washington seminar was a prelude to the flow of international financial assistance, it also had a message or two for the Tigers. Much as they may desire otherwise, the global powers are yet to grant them the much-required international legitimacy - the raison d'etre for the LTTE's present peace moves. The two important messages from Washington were: the Tigers continue to be viewed by the global community as "terrorists", and India, the country "which can make or break peace", will have nothing to do with the Tigers.

Although the LTTE managed to win legitimacy within Sri Lanka as a precondition for the commencement of talks, it continues to be branded a terrorist outfit by the international community. Its much-sought-after transition from being an organisation of "terrorists" to that of "freedom fighters" remains as elusive today as it was a year ago, with none of the major powers concerned - India, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. - revising their opinion on the matter.

Renewing the call made in 2002 at the Oslo mini donors' conference, Armitage wanted the LTTE to demonstrate change before the U.S. considered removing it from the list of foreign terrorist organisations. "Our position is crystal clear, the LTTE must unequivocally renounce terrorism in word and in deed if we are to consider withdrawing the designation," he said, explaining why the Tigers were kept out of the conference.

For the LTTE, Armitage's assertion was not new. In Oslo, when he addressed both the government and the Tigers, Armitage had made a similar call. However, the organisation continues to maintain that its "military strength" is what has made negotiations possible. Another call made by Armitage, for the LTTE to abandon the concept of a separate state, was also turned down, with the Tigers retaining that as "the last option".

In what can be interpreted as an act of giving a long rope to the Tigers, Armitage said: "The way the current negotiations are going, the United States can see a future for the LTTE as a legitimate political organisation, but it is still up to the LTTE to change this situation."

In the run-up to the Washington conference, the role of the U.S. in Sri Lanka's conflict resolution process became more visible. Traditional ties between the ruling United National Party (UNP) and the U.S., particularly with the Republican Party, is seen as the starting point. In addition, the changing geo-political strategy of the U.S., which brought it close to a defence agreement with Sri Lanka in 2002, is seen as another factor. On the whole, the U.S. involvement is seen by some political analysts as the one factor that has "got the Tigers trapped".

"If they try to wriggle out now, it will be difficult for them," a political analyst said. This, however, did not rule out the possibility of a return to violence. "It could be against other Tamil parties, which the LTTE sees as its opponents; it could be in the south, it could be in any form," the analyst said.

In a way, the year 2002 witnessed a re-enactment of the early days of the conflict resolution process, with each side wanting to show the international community that it was not at fault. If the Washington conference is any indication, the global community still sees the Tigers as an organisation that has to change. If the U.S. has made that point again, Britain, which banned the Tigers on February 28, 2001, has also not changed its position.

NEW DELHI, clearly, is in no mood to give any latitude to the Tigers. The Washington seminar was significant on another count - the presence of an Indian delegation for the first time since the latest peace process started. And the Indian presence was not without a message. Having stayed out of the Oslo donors' meet, New Delhi confirmed its participation in Washington only after it was made clear to it that the LTTE was not invited.

Unlike in the case of the U.S., which proscribed the Tigers on October 8, 1997, the Indian ban is directly linked to a terrorist act on the country's soil, the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The message from India, therefore, is that the LTTE is a terrorist organisation and its leader, V. Prabakaran, the "national leader" of Sri Lankan Tamils, is a "proclaimed offender" in India.

India's presence at the seminar also made it clear that it would go along with efforts to find peace in Sri Lanka as long as the Tigers were not its fellow-travellers. Moreover, the points reportedly made by the Indian Ambassador to the U.S., Lalit Mansingh, reiterated New Delhi's well-known policy. It was also pointed out that India had already committed $200 million through the bilateral route.

Of crucial importance in the Indian support to the peace process is the fact that it has taken the bilateral, not multilateral, approach. Given the situation that multilateral assistance would go to a fund handled jointly by the government and the LTTE, New Delhi's decision to stick to the bilateral path is yet another message that while it backs peace, it will have nothing to do with the Tigers. Also to be noted is the fact that India's presence in Washington was at the official and not the political level, unlike that of the U.S., Norway and Japan. The imperative now is that India does not make compromises. There is a growing realisation that whatever be the outcome of the conflict resolution process, the LTTE cannot escape from the consequences of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination.

Donors in Washington pledged an annual assistance of more than $1 billion for three years. The reported pledge comes against the backdrop of a shattered economy. Decades of violence has left the island debt-ridden. The government is basing its international plea for funds on two documents. The first, "Regaining Sri Lanka", spells out a policy road map for further economic reform. The second, which is an assessment document, is for the economic revival of the eight northern and eastern districts.

While the south needs macro-level economic restructuring, in the north it is even worse. Battle-scarred villages are all that remain after 20 years of conflict. Lack of basic infrastructure - health care, power and transport - reflects the magnitude of the tasks ahead. A year and two months after the ceasefire agreement, the so-called "peace dividends" are yet to flow. Even this means two different things to the people of Sri Lanka. For those in the south, it means primarily an absence of war and better standards of living. For the residents of the north and the east, however, it means re-building their lives from scratch.

The government, for its part, has chosen to push issues such as the re-building of infrastructure in the north and east with multilateral assistance. The broader aim appears to be to link the larger political solution to the much-required economic assistance. The worst fear of those opposing the peace process is that the LTTE will walk away after it gets the money. At least on paper this is difficult, as the joint fund mechanism will remain alive only as long as the Tigers and the government keep the process going. Under the provisions of the joint fund mechanism, when the process collapses the custodian will return the unspent money to the respective donors. Prospective donors want to see ground-level implementation of the commitments made. Among the several commitments, the critical ones are those relating to human rights, and political matters such as the working of democracy and pluralism.

Indications are that there is much that remains to be done by the LTTE to show that it has chosen to move away from the path it has followed so far. The message from Washington to the LTTE is short and clear: change or face the consequences.

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